Noor Jajo at driver's wheelNoor Jajo, a research assistant in professor Francesco Biondi’s Human Systems lab, sits behind the wheel of a Tesla used in recent research into driver attentiveness in semi-autonomous vehicles.

Drivers tune out in semi-autonomous vehicles, UWindsor researchers find

When it comes to semi-autonomous vehicles, regulators need to improve driver training, direct manufacturers to better record crashes, and fund more research into how drivers use the technology over long trips and in adverse weather, according to a new report by the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Human Kinetics.

Kinesiology professor Francesco Biondi studied 30 volunteers as they drove a 2022 Tesla Model 3 on Hwy. 401 to Chatham and back in both the manual and L2 semi-autonomous modes. Despite it being many of the volunteers’ first time behind the wheel of a Tesla, the drivers were tuning out while in semi-autonomous mode, glancing for dangerous periods of time at the vehicle’s touchscreen instead of focusing on the road.

Drivers were far more alert in the fully manual mode, Dr. Biondi said.

“We suspected this would be the case, but it was much worse than we anticipated,” he said.

Some participants, he noted, even started to doze off while in L2 mode.

Biondi’s study was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. While there have been previous studies using driving simulators, to Biondi’s knowledge, his study is the first time anyone in Canada has conducted research involving drivers of a semi-autonomous vehicle in real-life road conditions.

Like pilots who engage autopilot, drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles go from being “operators” to “supervisors,” Biondi said.

“Drivers are playing a more hands-off role in supervising the system functioning, which may result in impaired performance in resuming manual control of the vehicle whenever necessary.”

For the study, the drivers were outfitted with special headgear that tracked their eye movements, pupil dilation, and blink rates. They wore heart monitors and a device that sensed their hand-eye reaction time. A trio of cameras recorded the drivers’ head movements, as well as what was happening on the road in front and behind the vehicle. Biondi’s research assistant, Noor Jajo, was in the back seat to answer questions, give directions, and record data.

In the L2 or semi-autonomous mode, the vehicle maintains its positioning in its lane. It maintains a constant speed unless there’s a slower vehicle ahead, in which case it slows down to follow at a safe distance. Drivers are expected to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

“Our study shows they aren’t doing this,” said Biondi. “These systems are supposed to be safer, but when you consider human systems, that is not necessarily the case.”

He said his study showed the technology is less reliable in construction zones where lane markings are less discernable. Drivers need to be more vigilant in those circumstances.

Biondi said more study is needed involving drivers on long trips and in adverse weather conditions, especially if semi-autonomous technology becomes more widely adopted by automakers and consumers.

“As L2 systems become more common in vehicles, more research is necessary to develop a better understanding of the implications that such transition has on driver behaviour and road safety.”

Read Biondi’s full research report here.

—Sarah Sacheli

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